Once (2006) / Drama-Musical

MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 85 min.

Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova
Director: John Carney
Screenplay: John Carney

Review published July 1, 2014

Once is one of those special films that might only come once in a lifetime, a wholly unique motion picture that taps right into your emotions without the traditional movie elements of plot, story and deep characterizations.  It's a profound and personal film about people who make profound and personal music.  And not just personal, but stirring and heartfelt music at that.  It's a film about music that captures just what music can do for people, in terms of connecting one another with thoughts and feelings we all share.

The film is about a male vacuum repair tech and street musician (aka, busker) with a name we never learn (Hansard), who ends up meeting a female Czech immigrant (Irglova), also with a name we never learn, and though they are strangers at first, they end up being strongly connected instantly, first through his music, and then with her accompaniment on the piano.  In addition to their music, they share an inspiration -- a love that didn't quite work out for them, and a longing for a return of that initial feeling. 

Once is written and directed by John Carney (Begin Again, On the Edge), former bassist for Hansard's band (The Frames), who explores the agony of love lost, and also, in the story of the two people at the heart of the film, a love unrequited.  It's a musical in some ways, as whole passages go by in which someone will sing or listen to songs in their entirety, with each instance seeming to comment on the feelings and expressions felt by the characters at that moment in their lives.  There's not much plot or dialogue, but there is great visual and auditory poetry to be found, where each glance can speak volumes more than anything that could have been said with words aloud.

It certainly helps for authenticity's sake that the stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are not only musicians themselves, but have subsequently collaborated on an folk-rock album together (as The Swell Season) prior, during and after this film project. Not only does this help with the chemistry between them as actors (the two were actually falling for each other in real life while filming), but also their synergy when it comes to playing the music and singing the songs together.  Their music together greatly expresses the angst, pain, longing and regret they both have been feeling through the agony of love fallen apart, and their voices blend together in a harmony that is nothing short of beautiful, even in its melancholy. It's hard to believe that the story is a work of semiautobiographical fiction from Carney and not a personal passion project from the two main actors.

It's not just the musical performances that strikes the mood just right.  The digital camera cinematography from Tim Fleming (Citadel, As If I  Am Not There) captures the quiet environs and beauty of the urban Dublin landscape (shot without permits with long lenses) without glossing it over, with wardrobe and buildings painted with a palette of earth tones, basked with street lights and reflections from storefront windows, like an gorgeous autumn day.  It feels vividly authentic, and romantically grainy (the film's budget was about $150,000), as the city often is through film, as the music and images play before our eyes.  The music works in concert with what's up on the screen, and though the conversations among people are few, relatively speaking, the lyrics and feeling of the songs fill in the bulk of what's important underneath the surface, just as a traditional musical would.

There's not much of a concrete story here -- two lovelorn musicians help each other out of stagnation to record a demo -- but Carney's film always seems to be speaking great volumes.  Just as there is a power to the music, there is a power to the film itself, that consummately demonstrates that there is an ironic strength in showing great vulnerability.  There may be films out there with more spit and polish, and with more form and content, but it would be a rare find to encounter one with more understated passion, and narrative paths expected but, refreshingly, never trod upon.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo